Friday, October 2, 2009

The Dangers of Visceral Hatred: Columns Worth Reading

A few weeks ago, I recommended a column by Pierre Atlas in The Indianapolis Star. To really see how coarse the debate has gotten, take a few minutes to read Atlas' column and then read the comments posted by readers of The Indianapolis Star. Now, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written a column that echoes Atlas' concerns and looks at the danger to our country from the repeated efforts to delegitimize the President (whether it be President Obama or his immediate predecessors). Please take the time to read Friedman's column as well (and take some time to read some of the comments, too).

Because online columns are sometimes removed after a few weeks, I've elected to reprint both Atlas' and Friedman's columns below. I hope that neither The Indianapolis Star nor The New York Times will mind...


Beware extreme rhetoric

By Pierre Atlas
September 10, 2009
Reprinted from The Indianapolis Star

There are many legitimate concerns about health-care reform. But what is getting the most attention from the media and ordinary Americans is the long list of false accusations and terrifying hyperbole about "death panels" and a government takeover of the health-care sector, neither of which is proposed in any of the bills being debated in Congress. Most disturbing, however, is the extreme rhetoric of demonization against the president — rhetoric that might produce horrific consequences.

Every day on the Fox News Channel, Glenn Beck launches into a diatribe against Obama, using bizarre flow charts, channeling Joe McCarthy with accusations of Communists in the White House and calling the president a dangerous dictator. Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk show hosts steadily attack Barack Obama's legitimacy as president. The so-called "birthers" question Obama's citizenship despite the fact that he has a birth certificate from Hawaii. Some protesters at health-care town hall meetings held posters suggesting it was time for a bloody revolution, while others held pictures of Obama depicted as Hitler.

Of course, extremists on the left made Hitler analogies to President George W. Bush. In April 2003, I wrote a column for The Star about an anti-war protest I witnessed in Chicago in which one of the marchers held a highly offensive sign that said "Bush: Mein Kampf is not the Bible." But there is something palpably different about the extreme right's paranoid obsession with Obama and the hateful vitriol that is being aimed at him. It is more hysterical, more existential. Obama is being portrayed as a threat to everything that is American, as a disease that needs to be eradicated rather than the democratically elected president of the United States. The irrational fear that Obama would indoctrinate schoolchildren with "socialist ideas" in a speech he gave on Tuesday is but the latest example.

Last month, Pastor Steven Anderson gave a sermon in his Faithful World Baptist Church in Arizona titled "Why I Hate Barack Obama." It is available for viewing on YouTube. In the sermon, Anderson declares, "I am not going to pray for his good. I am going to pray that he dies and goes to hell."

Anderson came to public attention when one of his congregants protested outside Obama's speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Phoenix, carrying a semi-automatic assault rifle. The man told reporters that he belonged to Anderson's congregation and that he had been inspired to take the gun to the event after listening to Anderson's anti-Obama sermon.

Extreme rhetoric of hate and demonization set the stage for the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. I was in Israel about 16 months before the assassination. Outside the official prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, I saw banners proclaiming that Rabin had "the blood of Jews on his hands" and denouncing him as a "traitor" to Israel and the Jewish people. Extremist rabbis declared that, according to Jewish law, Rabin could be justifiably killed for being willing to withdraw from territories captured in the 1967 war. Rabin was depicted in a Nazi SS uniform. Rather than denouncing the extremists, opposition leaders and future prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu egged on the anti-Rabin rhetoric for their own political purposes. It was from this vile atmosphere that the lone and unrepentant assassin Yigal Amir emerged to take the prime minister's life and alter the course of Middle East peace, perhaps forever.

When I see and hear repeated instances of anti-Obama hysteria and hate, I can't help but think of that atmosphere in Israel. Responsible Americans — and especially responsible Republicans and conservatives — need to denounce the hateful and dangerous rhetoric that has filled town hall meetings, the airwaves, cyberspace, and the cable news channels. With rights come responsibilities, and this includes our constitutional rights to free expression. Democracy isn't endangered by ignorant hotheads making hysterical statements and accusations. But it can be endangered when responsible and rational people remain silent in the face of potentially violent hate speech.

Where Did ‘We’ Go?

By Thomas L. Friedman
September 30, 2009
Reprinted from The New York Times
I hate to write about this, but I have actually been to this play before and it is really disturbing.

I was in Israel interviewing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin just before he was assassinated in 1995. We had a beer in his office. He needed one. I remember the ugly mood in Israel then — a mood in which extreme right-wing settlers and politicians were doing all they could to delegitimize Rabin, who was committed to trading land for peace as part of the Oslo accords. They questioned his authority. They accused him of treason. They created pictures depicting him as a Nazi SS officer, and they shouted death threats at rallies. His political opponents winked at it all.

And in so doing they created a poisonous political environment that was interpreted by one right-wing Jewish nationalist as a license to kill Rabin — he must have heard, “God will be on your side” — and so he did.

Others have already remarked on this analogy, but I want to add my voice because the parallels to Israel then and America today turn my stomach: I have no problem with any of the substantive criticism of President Obama from the right or left. But something very dangerous is happening. Criticism from the far right has begun tipping over into delegitimation and creating the same kind of climate here that existed in Israel on the eve of the Rabin assassination.

What kind of madness is it that someone would create a poll on Facebook asking respondents, “Should Obama be killed?” The choices were: “No, Maybe, Yes, and Yes if he cuts my health care.” The Secret Service is now investigating. I hope they put the jerk in jail and throw away the key because this is exactly what was being done to Rabin.

Even if you are not worried that someone might draw from these vitriolic attacks a license to try to hurt the president, you have to be worried about what is happening to American politics more broadly.

Our leaders, even the president, can no longer utter the word “we” with a straight face. There is no more “we” in American politics at a time when “we” have these huge problems — the deficit, the recession, health care, climate change and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that “we” can only manage, let alone fix, if there is a collective “we” at work.

Sometimes I wonder whether George H.W. Bush, president “41,” will be remembered as our last “legitimate” president. The right impeached Bill Clinton and hounded him from Day 1 with the bogus Whitewater “scandal.” George W. Bush was elected under a cloud because of the Florida voting mess, and his critics on the left never let him forget it.

And Mr. Obama is now having his legitimacy attacked by a concerted campaign from the right fringe. They are using everything from smears that he is a closet “socialist” to calling him a “liar” in the middle of a joint session of Congress to fabricating doubts about his birth in America and whether he is even a citizen. And these attacks are not just coming from the fringe. Now they come from Lou Dobbs on CNN and from members of the House of Representatives.

Again, hack away at the man’s policies and even his character all you want. I know politics is a tough business. But if we destroy the legitimacy of another president to lead or to pull the country together for what most Americans want most right now — nation-building at home — we are in serious trouble. We can’t go 24 years without a legitimate president — not without being swamped by the problems that we will end up postponing because we can’t address them rationally.

The American political system was, as the saying goes, “designed by geniuses so it could be run by idiots.” But a cocktail of political and technological trends have converged in the last decade that are making it possible for the idiots of all political stripes to overwhelm and paralyze the genius of our system.

Those factors are: the wild excess of money in politics; the gerrymandering of political districts, making them permanently Republican or Democratic and erasing the political middle; a 24/7 cable news cycle that makes all politics a daily battle of tactics that overwhelm strategic thinking; and a blogosphere that at its best enriches our debates, adding new checks on the establishment, and at its worst coarsens our debates to a whole new level, giving a new power to anonymous slanderers to send lies around the world. Finally, on top of it all, we now have a permanent presidential campaign that encourages all partisanship, all the time among our leading politicians.

I would argue that together these changes add up to a difference of degree that is a difference in kind — a different kind of American political scene that makes me wonder whether we can seriously discuss serious issues any longer and make decisions on the basis of the national interest.

We can’t change this overnight, but what we can change, and must change, is people crossing the line between criticizing the president and tacitly encouraging the unthinkable and the unforgivable.


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